WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama abruptly canceled a long-planned missile shield for Eastern Europe on Thursday, replacing a Bush-era project that was bitterly opposed by Russia with a plan he contended would better defend against a growing threat of Iranian missiles.
The United States will no longer seek to erect a missile base and radar site in Poland and the Czech Republic, poised at Russia's hemline. That change is bound to please the Russians, who had never accepted U.S. arguments, made by both the Bush and Obama administrations, that the shield was intended strictly as a defense against Iran and other "rogue states."
Scrapping the planned shield, however, means upending agreements with the host countries that had cost those allies political support among their own people. Obama called Polish and Czech leaders ahead of his announcement, and a team of senior diplomats and others flew to Europe to lay out the new plan.
"Our new missile defense architecture in Europe will provide stronger, smarter, and swifter defenses of American forces and America's allies," Obama said in announcing the shift, which U.S. officials said was based mainly on a May U.S. intelligence assessment that Iran's program to build a nuclear-capable long-range missile would take three years to five years longer than originally expected.
The replacement system would link smaller radar systems with a network of sensors and missiles that could be deployed at sea or on land. Some of the weaponry and sensors are ready now, and the rest would be developed over the next 10 years.
The Pentagon contemplates a system of perhaps 40 missiles by 2015, at two or three sites across Europe. That would augment a larger stockpile aboard ships. The replacement system would cost an estimated $2.5 billion, compared with $5 billion over the same timeframe under the old plan. The cost savings would be less, however, because the Pentagon is locked into work on some elements of the old system.
The change comes days before Obama is to meet with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev at the United Nations and the Group of 20 economic summit. Medvedev reacted positively, calling it a "responsible move."
"The U.S. president's decision is a well-thought-out and systematic one," said Konstantin Kosachev, head of the foreign affairs committee in the State Duma, the lower house of the Russian Parliament. "Now we can talk about restoration of the strategic partnership between Russia and the United States."
At the same time, Russia's top diplomat warned that Moscow remains opposed to new punitive sanctions on Iran to stop what the West contends is a drive toward nuclear weapons.
The spokesman of Iran's parliamentary committee on national security and foreign policy, Kazem Jalali, called the decision positive, though in a backhanded way.
"It would be more positive if President Obama entirely give up such plans, which were based on the Bush administration's Iran-phobic policies," Jalali told The Associated Press.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Iran's changing capabilities drove the decision, not any concern about the Russians, but he acknowledged that the replacement system was likely to allay some of Russia's concerns.
American reaction quickly split along partisan lines. Longtime Republican supporters of the missile defense idea called the switch naive and a sop to Russia. Democrats welcomed the move, with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi calling it "brilliant."
"The administration apparently has decided to empower Russia and Iran at the expense of the national security interests of the United States and our allies in Europe," said Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon of California, the top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee.
The Democratic chairman of that committee, Rep. Ike Skelton of Missouri, told the AP the shift reflected a proper understanding of the current threat from Iran.
"It's about short- and medium-range missiles," Skelton said.
The Obama administration said the shift is a common sense answer to the evolution of both the threat and the U.S. understanding of it. Iran has not shown that it is close to being able to lob a long-range missile, perhaps with a nuclear warhead, at U.S. allies in Europe.
The Bush administration had calculated that Iran might be able to do that as soon as 2012, but the new assessment pushes the date back to 2015 to 2020, a U.S. government official familiar with the report told The Associated Press. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the report remains classified.
Previous intelligence assessed that Iran would have an ICBM capable of menacing Europe and the United States sometime between 2012 and 2015, another U.S. government official said.
Iran has improved its ability to launch shorter-range missiles, however, and despite the crude nature of some of those weapons the Pentagon now considers them a greater short-term threat.
Obama's shift comes as a confidential report seen by The Associated Press says Iran experts at the U.N nuclear monitoring agency believe Tehran has the ability to make a nuclear bomb and has worked on developing a missile system that can carry an atomic warhead.
The document appeared to be the "secret annex" on Iran's alleged nuclear arms program that the U.S., France, Israel and other members of the International Atomic Energy Agency say is being withheld by agency chief Mohamed ElBaradei – claims the nuclear watchdog denies.
The United States will join international talks with Iran next month, a major shift that makes good on Obama's campaign pledge to engage the main U.S. adversary in the Middle East.
Associated Press writers Jennifer Loven, Pauline Jelinek, Desmond Butler and Pamela Hess in Washington and Nasser Karimi in Tehran and George Jahn in Vienna contributed to this report.